SUTTONS BAY — Chris Smith isn’t your average artist.
Surrounded by works in progress in his basement studio, the 41-year-old Suttons Bay resident works every day from seven to five to make a paycheck, to put food on the table for his family. It’s a job he’s held for nearly 20 years, a labor of love for the life-long outdoorsman.
He works mostly in oils making paintings of wildlife and dogs on a commission basis, something he’s been doing since graduating from Lake Superior State in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife management.
It’s his work ethic that this month helped the painter win the 2014 Michigan Duck Stamp Contest and the Michigan Ducks Unlimited Sponsor Print of the year contest.
“I learned how to make money at this the hard way,” he said, his tan painting shirt littered with a melange of colors near its shoulders where he wipes his brushes. “God gives you a talent and wants you to explore it, to use it.”
Smith’s entry won the latest contest sponsored by the Michigan Duck Hunters Association and will be reproduced on the organization’s annual duck stamps and a limited number of prints. They are the stamps, which until a handful of years ago, were handed to every duck hunter in the state who bought a license. Now, the licenses are electronic and hunters who want one for their collection must order them from the association.
They are the same stamps that nearly three decades ago began to inspire Smith toward his career.
He still can remember his first hunting license, one with a stamp, that he wore at 12 years old in a plastic pocket on the back of his orange hunting vest.
But, it is the encouragement from family which pushed the young artist to make a career of painting wildlife.
“I was in high school thinking, ‘yeah, that’s going to be me someday,’” he said.
Then, during college, Smith managed to make a part-time job of painting for people and magazines. His artwork has been featured on the cover of magazines like Pointing Dog Journal, Just Labs and the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine.
Smith cuts no punches, he loves the work, despite its ups and downs. Otherwise he wouldn’t keep doing it, he said.
And, it doesn’t hurt that his field research can be done in the field while hunting each fall.
Today, he paints plenty of pictures of wildlife, but also paints dozens of pictures of clients’ dogs. He finishes between 40 and 50 paintings a year, most of them on a commission basis, doing everything he can to please his customers. The only place his work is on display outside of his studio and website is Gallery 22, a budding art gallery near his home.
He’s had a few customers so happy they’ve begun crying on the phone when their painting arrives in the mail, he said.
“I hang up after thinking how cool it is to get to do this and make people happy,” he said. “If I couldn’t do that, I would have looked for a different line of work a long time ago.”
While he has won a stack of awards and has been featured on Michigan’s duck stamps twice now, there still is one major award Smith hasn’t won. His entries have placed in the top 25 several times in the Federal Duck Stamp contest. Those are stamps which still are handed to duck hunters across the nation when they buy their licenses and symbolize the pinnacle of waterfowl painting.
But, Smith knows it’s only a matter of time before he wins the big contest. Both times he’s won the Michigan contest, his paintings beat out those of past winners of the federal contest.
And, he doesn’t plan to stop painting anytime soon.
“If I’m doing this when I’m 80, then I’m happy,” he said.